DB takes to the water and receives recognition for 50 years in motorsport - Derek Bell Column - July 2014

Date: 
16th July 2014

It is often said: ‘Where has the year gone?’ I have been thinking this myself of late, as life has become something of a blur. In June, for example, I was down to share Mark Sumpter’s Porsche 962 in the Group C Historic race at Le Mans on the Saturday morning before the start of the main 24-hour event.

I remember saying two years ago that I was done with racing at the circuit, that it was time to stop, but Le Mans has such a gravitational pull, it’s hard to say no when invited back. And besides, the 962 played such an important role in my career. It’s a car that I love dearly so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Unfortunately, despite Mark’s car being very quick in practice, a major technical problem ended play so we didn’t make the start. Who knows, I may have already completed my last race at this historic circuit.

As it stands, 2014 marks something of a milestone: I have reached a half-century in motor sport. I have written about my special connection with Goodwood in this column before, the West Sussex circuit having been the venue for my first race in a Lotus Seven all those years ago. The place has a special place in my affections. The Festival of Speed at the end of June was an extraordinary event and I enjoyed taking to the hillclimb course aboard a Bentley in the supercar runs, and also the ex-Allan McNish Porsche 911 GT1-98. The highlight of the event, though, was receiving a lifetime membership of the AA for services to motor sport. I was rather touched by that.

In between these events, however, I had the most amazing evening of my life. What’s more, it had nothing to do with cars or motor racing. Every once in a while you experience things that blow your mind; you meet people whose stories inspire and humble you in equal measure. This happened to me in, of all places, HMS Victory in Portsmouth. While just being on board Nelson’s flagship from the Battle of Trafalgar was special – it is suffused with history – being invited to dine aboard it was something else entirely.

The offer came about after I met Lieutenant Commander Tim Boughton at a Goodwood event. That was about a year or so ago. My dad had been in the Navy, and I was interested in listening to Tim talk about the Fly Navy Heritage Trust. He asked if I would like to go to one of its events. I said ‘Yes’ but didn’t think much more about it until I received a delightful letter from Admiral Sir George Zambellas asking me to take supper on board. I simply had to accept his kind offer and I am so glad I did.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown CBE, who is a most amazing man. His flying record is of the never-to-be-equalled variety, and he has been the subject of several books and TV documentaries. As variously a Royal Navy officer and test pilot, he flew close on 500 different types of aircraft during his career. He is also the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated living pilot. On 3 December 1945, Eric became the first pilot to land on and take off from an aircraft carrier in a jet aircraft. The aircraft he flew, a de Havilland Sea Vampire, is now preserved in the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, Somerset.

After World War Two he commanded the Enemy Aircraft Flight group, which comprised top British pilots who evaluated captured German aircraft. Eric was one of few men who compared Allied and enemy aircraft in period. Among the latter was the Messerschmitt Me163B Komet. I’m told that flying this machine was tantamount to playing Russian roulette because of the notoriously dangerous propellants. Indeed, hard landings could result in leaks and the ’planes would explode in a heartbeat. The pilots’ chances of survival were effectively nil.

Eric was fluent in German and interviewed many rocket scientists and aircraft designers, and only stopped flying when he was 70. He is now 95, and one of the most engaged and engaging men I have ever met. People say racing drivers are brave, but you listen to men such as Eric – what they went through in combat and in pushing the technological envelope in peacetime – and it gives you an entirely new perspective. I could have listened to him for days. 

We sat at the same table as Admiral Nelson did, and I will never forget the sight of the sun setting through the window at the stern of the ship, and imagining what seismic events occurred on board. It still gives me goosebumps.

We should also add that there is a campaign underway to have Eric knighted, and rightly so!

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